Leaders of the U.S., Germany, France, and the UK warned Tehran that its continued nuclear advances and obstacles to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s work will jeopardize its return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA, also known as the Iran nuclear agreement.
Meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Rome, Italy on Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said they support President Joe Biden’s pledge to return the U.S. to full compliance with the JCPOA so long as Iran does the same.
Former president Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA deal in 2018. Biden has said the U.S. will rejoin once Tehran returns to full compliance with the agreement’s restrictions on nuclear weapons development.
U.S. and European leaders reiterated that returning to the deal would result in the lifting of sanctions that currently cripple Tehran’s economy.
“We call upon President Raisi to seize this opportunity and return to a good faith effort to conclude our negotiations as a matter of urgency,” they said in a statement provided by the White House following the meeting.
The so-called E3+1 format meeting in Rome came on the heels of Tehran’s announcement earlier this week that it is ready to resume negotiations before the end of November.
“They’re scheduled to resume,” Biden said to reporters when asked when he would like nuclear talks to begin.
Tehran should worry that such statements signal a hardening of a collective Western stance regarding Iran’s nuclear program, said Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute. He noted that, to the Iranians, the statement does not address their two key demands: that sanctions relief will not be only on paper but delivered in practice and that any prospective new deal will not be nullified by a following American president.
Gulf partners’ regional diplomatic efforts to deescalate tensions were mentioned in the E3+1 statement, but Israel, the staunchest U.S. ally in the region, which has been threatening military action against Iran’s nuclear program, was not.
That suggests there may be no agreement between the U.S. and European partners on what role Israel should play in the pressure campaign against Iran, said Vatanka. Or that they believe “it is best to keep Israeli threats alive but only in the background as a way to shape Iranian calculations.”
Study in contrast
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Rome on Thursday that the Saturday talks will be a “study in contrast with the previous administration since Iran was one of the areas of most profound divergence between the previous administration and the Europeans.”
“Here you’ll see Chancellor Merkel, President Macron, Prime Minister Johnson, and President Biden all singing from the same song sheet on this issue.”
However, in his first in-person meeting with these NATO allies, Biden would likely have to placate lingering resentment over the chaotic late-August U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which left them scrambling to get their troops and citizens out as the Taliban took Kabul. Analysts say the allies are likely to press Biden for firm commitments of better coordination on Iran, which they did not believe was given on Afghanistan.
“The Europeans need more reassuring now from Washington that it has a credible pathway forward to deal with Iran, and not end up with another clumsy policy blunder that will undermine European interests,” Vatanka said. “Europe wants the Americans to play their best diplomatic hand against Tehran than ever before. Last thing Europe wants is a new war in the Middle East.”
On Wednesday U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he had ordered a full-scale review of the American withdrawal. VOA asked Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre aboard Air Force One en route to Rome whether the timing of the Afghanistan review was pertinent ahead of Biden’s G-20 trip.
“I wouldn’t connect the two,” she said. “I don’t have much more to share about that.”
On Friday, ahead of the G-20, the U.S. Treasury Department announced new sanctions against two senior members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and two affiliated companies for supplying lethal drones and related material to insurgent groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Ethiopia.
With these sanctions Biden is signaling that his administration still has leverage and tools to pressure Tehran, said Sanam Vakil, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House.
“Iran’s sponsorship of regional instability continues to be on Biden’s radar,” she said.
Iran swiftly called the penalties “completely contradictory behavior.”
“A government that talks about an intention of returning to the nuclear deal but continues Trump's policy of sanctions is sending the message that it really is not reliable," Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said in remarks published on the ministry's website.
“Iran is upset but its options to hit back are limited,” said Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute, who predicts that the sanctions will not stop Iran from returning to the negotiation table.
“It can refuse to return to the talks in Vienna but then it will increase the chances that Washington can better mobilize the international opinion against Iran as the main spoiler that is preventing a breakthrough in the nuclear talks.”
Analysts say Tehran is trying to avoid a scenario where the U.S. and Europe convince Russia and China that Iran’s nuclear program is too close to possible weaponization.
“It’s likely Iran will return in part because Europeans – whom Iran sees as weaker than U.S. – and Russia with whom Iran does various deals, want Iran back,” said James Jeffrey, chair of the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program.
The United States and Israel have warned that they are exploring a Plan B if Tehran does not return in good faith to salvage JCPOA.
“Time is running short,” Blinken said at a joint press conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in Washington earlier this month. “We are prepared to turn to other options if Iran doesn’t change course, and these consultations with our allies and partners are part of it.”
However, analysts say the Biden administration is unlikely to use military options nor would it greenlight the Israelis to strike. Jeffrey said the U.S. is more likely to rely on a combination of new sanctions and tougher position on Iran’s aggression in the region, alongside strategic ambiguity on military response should the talks fail.
While the Iranians do not think the Biden team has a serious military Plan B, Tehran cannot allow the nuclear stalemate to go on forever, Vatanka said.
“One way or another, both sides – the US and Iran - need to put the brakes on this cycle of escalation,” he said.
VOA' Anita Powell contributed to this report.